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Healthcare for Prisoners

Healthcare for Prisoners

By Gouri Meempat

Incarceration or Imprisonment is one of the main forms of punishment practiced worldwide. The doctrine behind the same is rehabilitation for commission of offences, which provides a correctional mechanism which would finally lead to the reformation of the person. And hence, the environment envisaged inside a prison is what that would facilitate this reformation and is not an obnoxious and execrable one to torture the inmates. The present living conditions in most prisons as well as the treatment received by the prisoners is not only in contradiction with the theory envisaged but also violative of their basic fundamental and human rights.

V.R. Krishna Iyer (J) once observed that

“In our world, prisons are still laboratories of torture, warehouses in which human commodities are sadistically kept and where spectrums o f inmates range from drift-wood juveniles to heroic dissenters.”

According to the 2017- NALSA Report , there is 1382 Indian jails that can accommodate up to 3 lakh prisoners; But the current number of inmates in the Indian prisons is over 4 Lakhs, Which takes us to the first and foremost issue which causes healthcare concerns in the Indian jails which is, Overcrowding. In most prisons in the country, people are stalked like animals with no access to proper sanitation, food or sleep. In some prisons where the overcrowding is as acute as up to 600 percent, basic human needs such as hygiene is a distant dream. When the number of inmates are higher than a prisons capacity it naturally leads to the deterioration in its health and hygiene and also leads to insubstantial food and inadequate clothing. The reports hold some disturbing facts to provide where jail inmates were provided with mud to clean the common toilet for 100 people, or when the rationed water was so little that they had to choose between cleaning themselves or their clothes and the miserable situation where people have to sleep and eat suffering the stench from the forever clogged toilets.[1] Overcrowding paves way for spread of contagious diseases among the inmates. Especially in most prisons which lack the infrastructure or funding to provide an isolated accommodation for an infected prisoner. Data has it that, in South Indian prisons, 29 (9.6%) inmates suffered from acute upper respiratory tract infections and 15 (5%) from acute lower respiratory tract infections.[2] The Court had identified an unhealthy living premise inside the jail as a severe problem[3]as early as in the last century. In T N Mathur v. State o f UP[4], Supreme Court had directed the State of UP, that the persons detained must be housed in a lock-up which will provide at least 40 sq. ft. per person with minimal facilities of some furniture such as a cot for each of the detained persons and supply of potable water. Having regard to the climate conditions of the place, the lock-up should provide for an electric fan. There must be hygienic arrangements for toilet. The State shall ensure the satisfaction of or these conditions wherever such arrests and detentions are resorted to. Even with law in place ,the conditions remain the same.

One of the main reasons for overcrowding in the prisons is the slow justice delivery system of the country. One would be surprised to know that 63 percent of India’s prison population haven’t been convicted of any offence and are under trials. A plausible reason for the same could be the strict laws in order of certain Acts regarding bails. The court having identified the issue, have taken measures in the past to control it. For instance, In Undertrial Prisoners v. Union of India[5], wherein the bench was concerned with the detention of large number of persons in jail in connection with various offences under Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. 1985. The Court, after noting the stringent provisions relating to bail as incorporated in that Act, directed for release of those under trial prisoners who were languishing in jail for a period exceeding half of the punishment provided in the Act. Also, in Common Cause v. Union of India[6],with regards to under trial prisoners lodged in Tihar jail and directions were given to release them on bail depending upon the type of offences alleged against them on the completion of period mentioned in the judgment.

The Supreme Court in an order dated December 3, 2018 while discussing on the delay in the country in dispensing justice and right of the people to a speedy trial noted the current state of affairs in the prison and said that prisoners are human and can’t be kept like animals. Yet with minimal infrastructural facilities in most prisons and the increasing number of cases instituted every year , it is for time to tell that how much of this vision can be achieved.

Another major concern regarding the healthcare of prisoners is with regards to the physical and mental tortures they are subjected to. There is nothing new with police torture in India. The prevalence of the practice is so rampant that, it is imbibed into the morals of society as a way in which culprits should be treated. The sad reality is that even today this mentality persists and at times when the judiciary is impassive to such conduct. Khatri and Others v. State of Bihar and Others,[7] is a case that showcase the extreme passivity of the magistrates who remand detainees to police custody. In 1980, it was a brutality that shocked the nation. The police had blinded 31 prisoners by poking their eyes with bicycle spokes and weaving needles, and then pouring on acid. The distressing fact about the case other than the brutality involved is the impassive attitude of the judiciary; the report sent by the Police Officer in Charge stated that the accused had sustained injuries and yet the Judicial Magistrates did not care to enquire how injuries had been caused. Justice P.N. Bhagwati noted while hearing the case that

"We also cannot help expressing our unhappiness at the lack of concern shown by the Judicial Magistrates in not enquiring from the blinded prisoners, when they are first produced before the Judicial Magistrates and thereafter from time to time for the purpose of remand, as to how they had received injuries in the eyes.....”.

 In Sunil Batra (II) v. Delhi Administration[8], a prisoner was tortured by the insertion of a baton in his anus. The victim was tortured because of "an unfulfilled demand for money." In his opinion for the Supreme Court, Justice Krishna Iyer wrote that this suggested:

"that bribery, at the point of barbarity, is a flourishing trade within the house of punishment itself."

Not only does the authorities physically torture the prisoners at times they resort to certain practices to mentally torture them. Such a practice which was widely criticized was, Solitary Confinement. The practice is such that certain prisoners are totally deprived of any right to mingle or talk to co prisoners and the person is made to stay aloof. The court held that Solitary Confinement is for the court to impose and not for the prison authorities to employ as per their whims.[9]

All these listed factors which pose major concern on the mental and physical healthcare of prisoners are evidently violative of the fundamental and human rights. Article 21 enshrines right to life with human dignity, which guarantees a life more than mere animal existence.[10] The Supreme Court has also held that conditions of detention cannot be extended to deprivation of fundamental rights.[11] Also, this imposes an obligation on state to preserve life whether he is an innocent person or a criminal liable to punishment under the law. In cases such as D.K Basu v. State of W.B [12], where an issue was raised on custodial deaths , the court has opined that precious rights guaranteed under Article 21 cannot be denied to convicts, under trials, detenues and other prisoners in custody. The court while criticizing the inhuman third degree methods of police in Kishore Singh v. State of Rajasthan[13], held that, not only is such atrocities violative of article 21, 14 and 19 ,it is so barbarous that the government must take necessary steps to educate the police so as to inculcate a respect for a human. Court also held that solitary confinement, and practices like putting bar fetters on the prisoner on flimsy grounds are also violative of their fundamental rights. In Re-Inhuman Conditions in 1382 prisons[14], a case inviting attention of the Court as a citizen of India to the inhuman treatments in prisons , the court again upheld the importance of every human being to be treated with dignity.

The absence of new legislations that would fit the current circumstances would have contributed to it for a major extent. As of now, the legislation that govern the prison administration is the Prisons Act, 1894; a pre-colonial Act that has become obsolete with time. Apart from this the UN Convention against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) and The minimum standard rules for prisoners by the OHCHR also holds a hand in governance of prison administration in India. Even though the state has ratified global standards to ensure decent and dignified treatments to prisoners, the depressing reality is that most of the standards set in these conventions are not met in India. Revamping the current legislations and bringing in new sets of rules and conditions for prison administration, is the only way in which the current legal lacunae can be settled. 



[2] Health Status of the Prisoners in a Central Jail of South India,



[3] Ramamurthy v. State of Karnataka,  (1997) S.C.C. (Cri) 386.

[4] 1993 (Supp) 1 SCC 722

[5] 1994 (6) SCC 73

[6] 1996 (4) SCC 33

[7] AIR 1981 SC 928

[8] 1980 3 S.C. 488

[9] Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, AIR 1978 SC 1575

[10] Kharak Singh v. State of U.P, AIR 1963 SC 1295

[11] State o f Maharashtra v. Prabhakar Pandurang Sanzgir, AIR 1966 SC 424

[12] AIR 1997 SC 610

[13] AIR 1981 SC 625

[14] AIR 2016 SC 993

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